Jordan 'at boiling point' over refugees

Syrian refugees receiving aid packages at a camp in Jordan near the border with Syria. Official statistics show Jordan has admitted 635,000 Syrian refugees. But the government says the real figure is around 1.4 million. This year alone, Jordan estima
Syrian refugees receiving aid packages at a camp in Jordan near the border with Syria. Official statistics show Jordan has admitted 635,000 Syrian refugees. But the government says the real figure is around 1.4 million. This year alone, Jordan estimates that providing for Syrian refugees will cost US$2.7 billion (S$3.7 billion), with only a third of it covered by aid from the world community.PHOTO: REUTERS

King Abdullah makes urgent call for foreign aid at summit on humanitarian crisis

King Abdullah of Jordan has warned that his country is "at boiling point" because of the number of refugees pouring in from Syria.

Speaking on the sidelines of a recent summit on Syria's humanitarian crisis hosted by the British government, the monarch also said that unless foreign governments offer more financial assistance to tackle this humanitarian flood, the refugee crisis would destabilise Jordan. "Sooner or later", the king said, "the dam is going to burst."

King Abdullah's urgent appeals are echoed by Western security analysts, especially those in neighbouring Israel, all of whom regard Jordan, traditionally one of the most reliable pillars of stability in the Middle East, as critically endangered.

Official statistics show Jordan has admitted 635,000 Syrian refugees. That puts it third in the ranking of countries affected by Syria's humanitarian crisis, after Lebanon which has taken in one million, and Turkey with 2.5 million.

But the Jordanian government claims the number of Syrian refugees on its soil is actually around 1.4 million, since many of those who cross the largely unpatrolled desert border between Jordan and Syria remain unaccounted for.

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If you want to take the moral high ground on this issue, we'll get them all to an airbase and we're more than happy to relocate them to your country.

KING ABDULLAH, on Western criticism of Jordan's handling of refugees from Syria.

What is clear, however, is that the refugee crisis is placing an unsustainable burden on Jordan, a country with very few natural resources and chronically short of water for its own population. This year alone, the Jordanian government estimates that providing food and accommodation for Syrian refugees will cost US$2.7 billion (S$3.7 billion), with only a third of it covered by aid from the world community.

The massive inflow creates an acute shortage of places in schools and puts a severe strain on Jordan's creaky infrastructure. It also aggravates the country's unemployment figures and prevents it from balancing its budget.

Without the extra spending on refugees, Jordan would have been able to avoid a budget deficit this year, a matter of considerable importance for a nation which already faces a debt mountain equivalent to 90 per cent of its gross domestic product.

And, with the economies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on which Jordan depends now contracting as a result of low oil and natural gas prices, the well-being of ordinary Jordanians risks being hit from all sides.

But the biggest concern for King Abdullah and his government is that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group will use the migration flows to infiltrate Jordan itself.

ISIS, which last year shocked the Arab world by releasing a video showing a captured Jordanian military pilot being burnt alive, has long proclaimed its intention to overthrow Jordan's monarchy. And ISIS fighters may also have a more immediate reason to enter Jordanian territory: to escape from bombing attacks by the coalition of Western air forces led by the United States.

King Abdullah admits that a "strong vetting system" is in operation at the border with Syria in order to "filter out" potential terrorists. However, that is far from a precise science, and Jordan is already accused of refusing to admit around 16,000 would-be migrants, now stranded in a remote Jordanian desert outpost.

The monarch rejects Western criticism of his country's handling of such refugees.  "If you want to take the moral high ground on this issue, we'll get them all to an airbase and we're more than happy to relocate them to your country," the visibly angry king told foreign journalists in the capital, Amman.

But the king has also asked for greater financial assistance in handling the refugee crisis. The Jordanian government has plans to establish free trade zones where refugees could be gainfully employed and children provided with better education facilities.

Mr Alexander Betts, who runs Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre which takes a leading role in advising Jordan on such matters, admitted in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian that the scheme will take time to bear fruit and that it is not "going to dramatically reduce" the number of refugees pouring out of Syria.

So, behind the scenes, an effort to prop up Jordan's internal security is unfolding. The number of US military personnel stationed in Jordan is a closely guarded secret, but it is known to be rising fast. Most are engaged in training the nation's military, already famous throughout the Middle East as the most efficient of all Arab armed forces. Israel, which has full diplomatic relations with Jordan, is also providing discreet assistance. And Saudi Arabia is continuing to offer finances.

As King Abdullah points out, all this still means a highly precarious existence for his fragile nation. Jordan's plight is also a sign that, unless stopped, Syria's civil war will destabilise the entire region.

What Jordan has going for it is that all its backers are determined to save it from the mayhem of the Middle East.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Jordan 'at boiling point' over refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe